It being Earth Day today, I thought I would start out this post with one of the inspirational quotes we found in Chiapas, at Centro Ecoturistico Causas Verdes Las Nubes (the final destination of our journey).
After getting our fill of the warm sandy beaches and waterfalls of Cañon Rió la Venta, see part 1, we set out to visit la Selva Lacandona (Lacandon Jungle) near the Guatemalan border. Although the old growth forest is continuously suffering from deforestation, it is still the largest montane rainforest in North America, and much of it is protected in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. Because of its size and diversity in terrain, this region is home to roughly a quarter of all species found in Mexico including the jaguar, although according to our Mayan guide, no one ever sees any.
Scattered throughout the jungle are memories of what was once an impressive Maya civilization, which peaked some 1800-1100 years ago before mysteriously collapsing. Over the past thousand years, the jungle has taken over their cities, leaving them concealed under layers of dirt, leaves, vines, and trees to the point where they are unrecognizable even when standing on top of them. The Maya built their cities without the help of pack animals, metal tools, or even even the wheel. Instead, immense amount of manpower was needed to harvest the limestone blocks they used to construct their temples and structures. Over time, the limestone has disintegrated, changing the chemical composition of the soil, and thereby affecting the local plant-life. Using satellite imagery it is possible to detect these subtle differences, and identify the locations of some of these long lost ruins. Many of the more impressive structures have been excavated and partially restored so that we can get a glimpse into what was once one of the most advanced societies of the pre-Columbian West.
One of the largest Maya sites in Chiapas is Palenque, which was the first of three sites we visited. Seeing these incredible ancient buildings and carefully thought out city-plans makes you wonder what life would have been like 1,000 years ago in the jungle. Only one thing is for sure: it would have been hot. Very hot. Even at night, we didn’t stop sweating profusely. Perhaps that is why the Maya were not the peaceful people they were once believed to be, but rather constantly warred with one another, routinely offered human sacrifices to their deities, and spent their leisure time playing a ball game (Ōllamaliztli) where the loser was killed. After all, recent (and somewhat controversial) studies have found that violence may be correlated with hot temperatures.
Much of the jungle and ruins in this area are accessed from the Carretera Fronteriza, a border highway between Mexico and Guatemala that was constructed in the 1990′s and only recently paved. All the drugs and illegal immigration that comes from the south into Mexico also use this road, making it a potentially dangerous place to be – especially for tourists. Thus, we opted to arrange for a tour company to handle our transportation for this leg of our journey. At 6 am the following morning, much to our relief, the tour van did indeed show up at our campsite to pick us up. We joined 8 other mexican tourists and were on our way. The first destination was Yaxchilan, situated on the Usumacinta river and a major rival of Palenque. To get there requires an hour long boat ride down the river. Compared to Palenque, Yaxchilan offered a far more intimate experience with the ruins, surrounded by pristine jungle and the haunting sounds of howler monkeys.
Next we visited a nearby satellite of Yaxchilan: Bonampak. Although very small – it has only a single large structure – Bonampak has been an important site in deciphering the ancient Maya culture. Through a fortunate accident, rainwater seeping through the roof coated the walls of three small chambers with calcium carbonate, preserving elaborate and colorful frescos that depict religious ceremonies, war scenes with prisoners (presumed to be use in sacrifice), and ritual blood-letting. The site was first seen by the outside world in 1946, and provided some of the first evidence that the Maya were not a peaceful culture of mystics.
Although all of these ancient cities were mysteriously abandoned during a 200 year period roughly 1,000 years ago, the descendants of the ancient Maya still live in the area and speak their native language, and follow some of the old religious practices (though they no longer perform human sacrifices). We spent the following two nights at an ecotourism center in the small village of Lacanjá Chansayab, which is owned and operated by local Lacandon Maya people.
That night, we wandered through the jungle for 2-hours with a local Lacandon guide, listening to the sounds of the jungle as fireflies flashed around us (though the light show was not as impressive as what I witnessed last year in the Smoky Mountains). He brought us to several majestic Ceiba trees, which the Maya believed to be “world trees” or “trees of life.” They believed that the Ceiba formed the connection between the underworld, the terrestrial world, and the heavens. Although today we understand how a tiny seed can turn into such a gargantuan tree, if you step back and think about it for a moment, it is a rather mind blowing process. No wonder they held such an important place in ancient cultures. When you reach out and touch such an ancient spirit, you can feel the life and energy within it. Simply being in their presence, our guide explained to us, cleanses your soul. Although it may seem like a foreign concept to most Western cultures, I must say there is something to it. Just think, some of the trees we visited and touched with own hands could very well have been saplings when the Maya civilization was at its peak 1200 years ago. They could have conceivably been planted and cared for by Maya nobles like Bird Jaguar III, who lived to the ripe old age of 98 in the year 705 AD.
Before retracing our way back to San Cristobal de las Casas (a 5-combi, aka van, journey), we decided to stay for a second night to soak in the calm and relaxing environment.
Our route back took us through the mountains again, where we encountered a Zapatista road block. The Zapatistas are a revolutionary leftist group, composed mostly of rural indigenous people, who have declared war against the Mexican state since 1994 for various injustices. According to the current leader:
“We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.” – Subcomandante Marcos
War is perhaps not the right word now, as the demonstrations we saw were relatively peaceful. To make their plight known, they periodically shut down the main highway through the mountains, stopping all the trucks, buses, and cars. Our combi driver, however, seemed to have a connection, and we got to pass without waiting. Thanks to these protests, there have been improvements in gender equality and public health throughout the region, but even without seeing the protests it was clear to us that there is still a lot of inequality that needs to be addressed. Just about the only thing these rural families could take for granted were chickens, which were everywhere, in every stage of their lifecycle: eggs, chicks, hens, roosters, plucked, and fried.
Eventually we made it to Comitan, where we had planned to catch one last combi to the ecotourism center of Las Nubes. It turned out that we would actually have to take three combis to get there instead of one, and that was two combis too many. We changed plans and stayed the night in Paraiso Tziscao, where a local guide directed us to some beautiful cabanas on the shores of Lake Tziscao. About half the nights of our trip we spent camping, but when staying a cabaña like this is only an extra US$15 extra, you’d be a fool not to!
After sweating for a week in the jungles, the crisp mountain air of this tropical pine forest was a refreshing change. It was, almost, like being back in the Cascades. Our second day in the park, we decided to take up an offer from the guide we had met previously to do a tour with him. This turned out to be rather disappointing, as the tour was simply driving around and joining other Mexican tourists for selfies by each of the 16 lakes of various hues.
At one of the lakes we had the option to do a horseback tour to two more small lakes (“Dos Cenotes”) in the forest, for US$12 each. Aubrey loves horses, so we thought, why not! Immediately after mounting our horses, we noticed something awry: the guides themselves were not on horses. Instead, the tour consisted of them walking our horses along the trail. But before we could go anywhere though, we had to get through the tangled mess of a fallen down tree. My horse reluctantly stumbled through, but seeing this, Aubrey’s horse refused to go any further. Eventually the guides managed to coax it through after she dismounted, but we weren’t sure the poor animal would make it all the to the lakes and back again.
All of the lakes in the region are actually ancient cenotes (sinkholes in the limestone bedrock which expose the groundwater underneath) that have eroded into large lakes that are all connected by underground rivers and caves. We visited one of the accessible above-ground caves, which had several beautiful chambers filled with stalactites and stalagmites. If you look closely you’ll find religious offerings such as candles and flowers left for the deities of the underworld.
Following our lackluster guided experiences of the day, we decided it was time to move on to Las Nubes. We caught the next combi, which dropped us off on the side of the highway, 12 km from the park. Here we were (perhaps?) fortunate to get a ride from a young family in the back of their pickup truck. Half way there, however, they ran out of gas and the truck started over heating. We helped push it over one final hill to make it to a small store where, after some trouble with the siphon, we purchased a container of gasoline and were on our way again. At long last, we got to cool off in the turquoise waters of the Rio Santo Domingo. All was right in the world again!
Unfortunately this little paradise was the end of our adventure. To be honest though, my digestive system was pretty excited at the prospect of eating something other than tortillas, beans, eggs, and cheese. But first, we had to make it back to Tuxtla, which would involve 9 hours of combis and buses. We broke up the trip with a night in Comitan, where we had agreed to find a decadent dinner. The guidebook listed a fancy restaurant that served fresh organic food, but it had gone out of business. A local ex-pat didn’t have any recommendations for us, so we ended up at some place on the center square. I won’t even describe how disappointing our meal was, except to say that it came with a scoop of canned tuna as a garnish. I ended up forcing myself to eat a soggy piece of pizza elsewhere instead. At this point, the prospect of a familiar food became not just appealing, but a necessity. I immediately understood why Aubrey had asked me to bring her 20 cliff bars from the US. The next afternoon when we arrived in Tuxtla, we were thrilled to see something I would ordinarily not even consider as a dining option: La Burgesia, or as you probably know it: Burger King. Yes, there in the capital of Chiapas, in the food court of an air conditioned mall, we enjoyed the best of the best: hamburgers (with a slice of ham…?) and french fries.
And with that, our adventure had come to an end. There were many ups, and many downs, and many places I would never return to. And a few that I will. But it was a unique and valuable experience that I’m very glad to have had, and to have shared with the woman I love.